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How Army of Darkness ruined the Evil Dead

1992 was a year that changed me fundamentally as a person. I turned 14, started to wonder about girls, and music became a big thing with the discovery of Nirvana and R.E.M. It was also the year I fell head over heels in love with film beyond just going to see whatever PG-rated film was showing at the local fleapit each weekend. Around the summertime, my parents started to not really care what I was watching anymore. In quick succession I saw titles such as Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Larry Cohen’s Q the Winged Serpent (1982), Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). During cinema trips in 1992 I got to see Batman Returns, White Men Can’t Jump, Unforgiven and erm…Encino Man.

It was a great time to be alive with a sense of discovery filling all of my senses and compelling me onward. It was around the fall of ’92 when my attention wandered to the supposed nastiest of all video nasties in the store…The Evil Dead (1980). I wondered if I could handle it. If I handled what I had done already over the summer surely this wouldn’t present that much of a challenge. So, my dad rented The Evil Dead and I hid upstairs in the attic one cold October afternoon and watched the carnage unfold.

My memories of that initial viewing revolve around how dark and nihilistic the film felt, and my admiration for its primitive stop-motion animation and gore effects which somehow added to the nasty feel of the film. I would later read the excellent book The Evil Dead Companion (2000) and really come to admire the film for what Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert had to go through just to get the damn thing finished. There is a wonderful sense of invention about that first film and a real love poured into every frame, with genuine talent proving what they could do. Although I liked it, I wouldn’t say I ever fell head over heels in love with that first Evil Dead movie. However, a couple of weeks later, something would happen: an epiphany in the mind of a youngster which finally cemented his own desire to create and write, and somehow maybe one day make that his life.

The UK theatrical poster for Evil Dead II: :Dead by Dawn.

The first viewing of Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) was a strange night. A friend who I would later learn wasn’t really into horror movies was staying over and wandered off five minutes in when he decided he couldn’t deal with it. I stayed there glued to the film: the eyeball pop sequence, Raimi’s ram-o-cam going ballistic, the way that later Lynch collaborator Peter Deming (Lost Highway) shot the whole thing. It still had the lower end of the scale effects work but there was something altogether more confident about Evil Dead 2. It was a genuine tour de force of gore, humour and a remarkable performance from Bruce Campbell.

It also had an air of tragedy about it in the first half, with Ash (Bruce Campbell) having to chop up his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) when she becomes possessed by the evil, and actually mourning her in a few scenes. By the time it gets to the tooling up scene, and the uttering of the word “Groovy,” I was head over heels. This was the greatest film I had ever seen!

Back then there was no internet. I would get my film news from flicking through issues of Starlog or Fangoria in the comic shop that was right between my two local cinemas. I knew of Army of Darkness (1993) before I saw Evil Dead 2. I knew it was coming from the advertising of a comic book adaptation in the pages of my beloved Dark Horse comics I was obsessed with that summer. The comic adaptation was released and I waited for the three issues to emerge very slowly and with a lot of patience. I was already in love with Army of Darkness from that comic book.

The artwork by John Bolton and the deep colouring suggested that Army of Darkness was a more epic film than Evil Dead 2. It would cost a lot more and yet kept the same level of madcap invention. Most importantly, it looked as good as Evil Dead 2 and had that same level of darkness in the cinematography. It would be truly something to behold on the big screen. I waited for the release of the film…and waited…and waited. Six months after the comic, Army of Darkness opened and to my surprise showed at my local cinema. On a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1993, my best pal and I went and saw the film.

The Evil Dead has lived in comic book form from 1992 onwards.

My initial reaction to Army of Darkness was positive. It was an incredibly fun time at the flicks and the film had humour, fun effects work, and Bruce Campbell doing his thing. Despite some scathing reviews at the time, I still enjoyed the film for what it was. Later I would use the VHS version to introduce the film to a whole bunch of people and follow it up with Evil Dead 2 as the greatest achievement of the franchise.

There was always something off about the film though, and I could never quite place what it was. It occurred early on that this did not look like Evil Dead 2. Peter Deming had moved on and been replaced by future Matrix DP Bill Pope. Army of Darkness didn’t look like the film promised by the Dark Horse comic, but there was something else;  something that wouldn’t become apparent until many years later.

The sinking feeling started with the release of Army of Darkness on VHS with an alternate ending. Ash sleeps too long to get back to his own time and wakes up when an apocalypse has already happened. This ending was not the cheesy S-Mart ending we saw in the cinema, and was more in line with keeping with the spirit of Evil Dead 2’s ending and promised further sequels. When I saw the ‘S-Mart’ ending again when the film was broadcast on cable, something then finally started to annoy me.

We would later get an alternate cut of Army of Darkness on DVD. The additional footage in the windmill conjured some more of the spirit of Evil Dead 2, but was still relatively bloodless and played more for laughs than terror. Eventually, there would be the release of video games and further comics based in this universe. Bruce Campbell’s stature as a cranky raconteur at fan conventions would grow as would his popularity thanks to Army of Darkness and its cult fan-base that had grown with the film’s airings on TV.

People would constantly talk about an Evil Dead 4, a cinematic continuation of the franchise with Bruce Campbell once again on the big screen. The release of Sam Raimi’s underrated Drag me to Hell (2009) would only increase the anticipation of this. I watched and waited, but something occurred to me fairly early on in this talk of a new Evil Dead film…I didn’t want an Evil Dead 4. I still felt burned by the Star Wars prequels, but that wasn’t the reason.

Eventually after talk of a further movie was silenced, an Evil Dead remake was released in 2013. Directed by Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe), Evil Dead (2013) is the most savage horror experience released by a major studio this decade. The film is brutal. It sets out to make you wince, feel pain, and thrill you. It is that very rare of things these days; an experience. It is truly the nasty film that caused all of the furore in the UK in the early ’80s.

Evil Dead gave me hope. It was relatively free of humour, looked great, and was a film that went back to the franchise’s roots. It also made money: about $98 million worldwide, unheard of for this franchise. The lack of a cinematic sequel is puzzling, as it was definitely something I wanted to see again. After the credits of Evil Dead, Bruce Campbell appears in close up cameo and utters the immortal word “Groovy” and remember this…because it becomes important later.

Bruce Campbell, Keely Dana DeLorenzo and Ray Santiago in a promo image for the first season of Ash vs Evil Dead.

We got a TV version in Ash vs Evil Dead (2015), broadcast on Starz and later cancelled after three seasons. I won’t deny it is a fun show. Apart from Bruce Campbell, everyone is really well cast and it gives you an indication of where Evil Dead 4 may have actually gone. It’s full of strong gore, humour and provides a good half hours’ entertainment each episode and is easy to binge.

It is ultimately though, the show that finally brought everything that had been troubling me about the franchise in its further comics and video games into sharp focus with its first episode. Ashley J. Williams, a man not previously named beyond “Ash” in the first two movies, unleashes the evil again. He is constantly stoned, womanising, and wise-cracking his way through the gore. He is a buffoon…and he is not the character we saw in Evil Dead 2.

This is a shot of a traumatised Ash in Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn.

You have to go back to Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn and its tagline of “Kiss your nerves goodbye” to realise where this all went wrong. Evil Dead 2, once you get through the humour and roller-coaster nature of the film, is a dark movie. Ash is clearly really into his girlfriend, Linda. He buys her a weird necklace and plays the piano as she dances. Ash offers her champagne while impersonating the buffoon he would later become. He is distracted by the tape recorder in that cabin and Linda is taken by the evil. Ash shows genuine concern and terror. He is forced to lop Linda’s head off and bury her with a shovel.

What follows then for a while is watching a man have a nervous breakdown. Campbell, in these scenes, is absolutely brilliant. He cries when the piano spookily starts to play the same tune he used to impress Linda. He shakes when he has to cleave Linda’s head in two when she comes back to get him and stumbles around shell-shocked. When everything in the cabin starts to laugh at him after he saws off his own hand, he starts to laugh too, and eventually scream in madness at the whole thing.

There are moments of tension where Ash is losing it and there is only the sound of the wind howling through the cabin. You could make a pretty good argument that the whole film is an unwell person losing his mind. There is no evil, and yet we know through sequels this was not the case. But they went back to it as a concept in one of the best episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead.

This, to me, is Evil Dead: terror and madness so intense that you absolutely lose your sanity while trying to fight against an evil beyond comprehension. When Annie (Sarah Berry), Ed (Richard Domeier), Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Jo (Kassie DePaiva) turn up at the cabin, they find mutilated Ash caked in blood and half crazy. He is the only one who has lived with this evil and fought it, yet is called a coward a couple of times even though he is clearly mentally damaged by everything that has happened to him.

Ash gets possessed by the evil a couple of times in the movie and somehow recovers. When he tools up with chainsaw and shotgun, it is more because he has no choice and has to rather than through any bravery. When he fights Henrietta and is confronted by the evil in the flesh he still reacts with absolute terror and stumbles clumsily in the cellar and in the fight scenes. He is transported back through time and revealed to be the ‘hero from the sky’ prophesied in the Book of the Dead. Ash’s key reaction to this event after he has blown the head off a winged deadite is to cry “no” as he is hailed as a hero. It’s hard to imagine that a film like Evil Dead 2 would have been market tested, but it seems that what people responded to most was Ash tooling up and the word groovy because this then dictated where the franchise would go.

By the time we get to Ash vs Evil Dead, Ash is a very different character.

Aside from a couple of moments, the Ash we see in Army of Darkness is rarely scared. He is confident and uses phrases like ‘She-Bitch’ and ‘Fancy Pants,’ wise-cracking his way through medieval England and insulting all those he comes into close contact with. He is a man who takes charge once he is set free, not the quaking borderline lunatic from the previous film.

The humour is there but there is a blood fountain near the start and then lots of madcap hijinks over dismemberment. It’s no wonder the studio tried to cut the film to bring it the widest possible audience and yet even in the longer versions there wasn’t much to cut that offended. Army of Darkness is the tamest possible version of the Evil Dead on the big screen.

By the time you get to the S-Mart ending, the transformation of Ash from the Rambo of the horror genre to wisecracking asshole is complete. Hail to the king indeed. The franchise would go slowly downhill from here through comics and video games where Ash is a complete idiot, not a man with PTSD facing evil because he has no choice.

Looking back now at where Sam Raimi’s career would take him, big screen Spider-Man flicks and a Kevin Costner baseball movie, it’s entirely possible that Army of Darkness was intended as a calling card for Raimi to plant both feet firmly in the mainstream. It’s also possible now that Evil Dead had gone big budget and had the backing of Dino De Laurentiis, there was a raft of studio interference and expectation that Raimi wasn’t ready for. The intended epic tale with gore and pathos was written off long before cameras rolled to get the thing made.

It feels like we missed out on a different film, a larger scale horror film more in keeping with the tone and spirit of Evil Dead 2Army of Darkness could have been something truly incredible if this was made now with the creative clout that Raimi has. Still, somehow everybody who saw the film on video or cable as a kid seems to view Army of Darkness as the peak of this franchise, forgetting or ignoring the delirious madness of Evil Dead 2, a film that works on multiple levels. They instead love Ash for the wise-cracking Lothario he became later on.

Part of the charm of the Evil Dead franchise is its schizophrenic nature. The opening of the second movie remakes the first due to rights issues, and the start of Army of Darkness similarly ignores Evil Dead 2. You can’t help but think though that had the franchise remained independent, we could have gotten something truly special with Army of Darkness and maybe further instalments would have reflected the 2013 remake in tone. Evil Dead 2 is still the pinnacle of this franchise and horror in general. It is a remarkable achievement in every way and deserves its place as a horror classic.

 


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Christopher Holt

Written by Christopher Holt

Christopher Holt lives on the outskirts of London in the United Kingdom where he fights off evil in the local woods, goes skateboarding at night and somehow finds the time to write novels in between all of this.

9 Comments

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  1. ARMY OF DARKNESS had to go the horror comedy route in order to secure its MPAA rating,with Sam Raimi using the humor to pay homage to his comedic short films. And the last scene in ASH VS. EVIL DEAD’s last episode is also a homage to ARMY OF DARKNESS’ original finale. Otherwise,the shock of being time transported in medieval times had Ash lose his sense of reality and become comical to deal with what has happened to and with him,which he continued on with ASH VS. EVIL DEAD(and became less mature[and lost his maturity] as time went by).

  2. There are things that I agree with in that article, but as a whole, not even close to on the mark.

    Evil Dead 2 is the pinnacle of the Evil Dead canon… no question about that, I agree there. Army of Darkness for all the fun and grooviness that it is.. still takes a backseat to how incredible Evil Dead 2 is. And that’s ok. Evil Dead 2 is the best. Army of Darkness is great.

    That being said, that’s where we get off the ‘agreement’ train with this article… that was way too autobiographical… get to the point.

    I’ve actually heard some of the same arguments about Ash in the series compared to Ash in the cabin. It makes no sense. While they are the same person, they are very different people. The writer even alludes to this in his own article, which makes it even more frustrating he can’t see the writing on the wall in front of him.

    Again, there are some things in that article that he nailed, just didn’t dissect them properly in my opinion. The time Ash had at that cabin… was intense… insane… incredible… and, as the writer pointed out, it broke Ash. Mentally and physically. He even goes so far as to mention that there were clear signs of the loveable ‘groovy’, but bad ass, goofball that Ash becomes, before he even meets the evil.

    He then goes through a hell of a ride with this evil, one that clearly makes him snap.. as the iconic laughing scene shows. That’s it, sane Ash is gone. Expecting him to ever be the same character again, is in itself insane and even more unrealistic. Imagine being through the literal hell he went through, and coming out with your normalcy intact?? I would have hated that more. Basically, his insane goofball persona (that is still incredibly aware) has taken over, he has officially snapped.

    Then on top of that, he time travels. Once he arrives there, remember he’s already snapped. But then he figures out he holds a lot of the cards… in his words “Good, Bad, I’m the guy with the gun”. He has knowledge and experience they don’t… he has already fought this evil and survived, more than once, and then he does so again in their pit and becomes king. (Pause for obligatory Hail to the King, Baby). Of course he now has an almost insane demeanor and confidence. Nothing else has made sense to him during all this, how do you expect him to keep his own sense??

    Moving on to the TV show, we get another version of Ash. The gristled veteran, SOME normalcy has returned to his world, but how can you EVER expect him to go back to the same after what he has endured. Life as he ever knew it was changed. He has experience so he has knowledge. He has come back to reality a bit so some of the same goofiness is gone, but it’s still there. This isn’t the same Ash from some 30 years ago. And it shouldn’t be.

    Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness are 2 very different movies. And they should be. And they are both incredible in their own right. I personally think the character development is spot on. To suggest Army of Darkness ruined anything, is flat out wrong, from my point of view.

    But of course… to each their own.

    Cheers screwheads.

  3. Jayson’s comment nails it. Ash lost the woman he loved, was victimized beyond belief by incomprehensible evil, and turning to drugs and booze and adopting a “don’t get too close to anyone, they’ll just die horribly” attitude was his way of coping. (Great for humor, not really the best approach in real life.)

    Another thing to add is that for every good horror comedy there are far more decent pure horror flicks. In fact, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness did more to bring that genre mashup to the world than any other films before or after. How much do films like Zombieland, Sean of the Dead, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and countless other fantastic horror comedies owe to Sam, Ted, and Bruce?

    It may have killed the real horror of the franchise, but it brought real attention to horror comedy and influenced countless filmmakers.

  4. As someone who saw Evil Dead 2 the year it was released and has been a fan of the series ever since, I agree with this article. Mostly.

    I enjoy Army of Darkness, but it explicitly rejects most of what made Evil Dead 2 great (and EVERYTHING that made Evil Dead great). The Ash character makes no sense here. Listening to the Raimi commentary on both Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, it’s clear that he never liked Ash, and always saw him as a buffoon, and a wisecracking loser. I never felt that at all until Army of Darkness.

    Ash vs. the Evil Dead is a good show, taking the Army of Darkness Ash and putting him into a more horror-friendly universe. It has call-backs to the greatness of the second movie, but keeps the humor of the new, Army of Darkness Ash character.

    The Evil Dead remake movie was, for me, pointless. There’s nothing interesting about these characters (which is fine), but then does absolutely nothing to break new ground in any other way. The author here calls it “the most savage horror experience released by a major studio this decade.” By a major studio? Maybe. But there are a thousand movies from the past 40 years that are more horrifying. The remake offered nothing, except maybe to people who only watch major studio releases. I’ve met lots of millennials who liked it, because it gave inexperienced movie-goers something they’d never seen before. I haven’t met many people over 35, or any bigtime horror fans, who like it, because for the most part we found it boring.

  5. I am a fan of all Evil Dead movies and I think the remake captured perfectly the experience of watching the first Evil Dead film for the first time. I still like the original, a lot, but after so many viewings, it had lost its edge. To me, the remake offered the perfect Evil Dead experience, the slowly building tension that builds up to a crescendo of edge-of-your-seat terror, the bleak nihilism, the occasional dark comedy, the Grand Cuiqnol gore. I like it, for what it is. And I am pretty for from being a Millenial.

  6. Ash vs evil dead series shouldn’t have came out late in 2015 instead of waiting but Bruce was too busy doing burn notice series. He should have return to ash vs evil dead earlier in 2009 before released in 2011. His Ash character was born in 1957 good thing Bruce played ash early in 1979 before released in 1981.

  7. Especially army of darkness comics made in 2004 it took place in the late 1994. It also features with a special appearance by Darkman,Xena,Vampirella,Marvel zombies,Re animator,Danger girl,Kiss,Hack slash,bubba go tep, & Obama. Evil dead 2 comics are the only one ruined. Good thing about Freddy vs Jason vs Ash comics makes sense in 2000s.

  8. Especially Army of Darkness comics were made in 2004 the took place from the late 1994. It also features with Xena,Darkman,Marvel Zombies,Danger Girl,Jack Slash,Re Animator,Kiss,Bubba Ho-Tep, & Obama. Good thing about Freddy vs Jason vs Ash comics made sense in 2000s. Evil Dead 2 comics were the only ones ruined.

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